I rolled out of the portal, falling heavily to the floor and my arm took the brunt of a rough landing. Pulling myself onto my knees, I fought the wave of nausea which beset me from travelling through the portal – further complicated by dizziness from donating blood to the Tines.
It took a few seconds to gather my senses and I caught sight of Epi waving his hand across the closing portal. “No!” Lurching unsteadily to my feet, I watched in dismay as the pentagram disappeared from the wall. “Damn it, Epi! You’ve got to open it again, I’ve got to go back…” I swayed shakily and Conal caught me, lifting me effortlessly into his arms.
“Easy, Sugar. You’re not going anywhere.”
“You don’t understand, he’s not dead! I saw him as I stepped through the portal! That thing, it’s still alive!” I yelled heatedly, frustrated at my inability to make them understand.
Epi was staring at me as though I’d lost my mind and Conal was frowning as he held me firmly against him.
“Put me down, will you? I’m fine.” I wriggled until Conal lowered me onto the ground, his hand against my elbow to keep me steady. I inhaled sharply, calming enough to make some sense. “Archangelo – the other Nememiah’s Child. I thought I’d killed him – but he’s not dead.”
“I think you’re hallucinating, Lottie. He was dead when we left. You threw the Philaris at him, he copped it straight in the chest,” Ralph stated uncertainly.
“I thought he was dead, but he wasn’t. He must have been faking, pretending to be dead or he was unconscious the whole time we were preparing to come back. I saw him watching me when I went through the portal,” I explained bleakly.
Alarm was evident in Epi’s wizened features. “Either way, there is nothing we can do about it now. You most certainly cannot go back through the portal again. You’re bleeding,” he was scrutinizing my arm where the gash had split open, “and you look dreadful.”
Wrinkling my nose, I twisted my arm to study the wound. “Guess I hit hard on the way back.”
“That should not have made a difference, child. The blood sigil should have sealed it and healed it instantaneously,” Epi announced emphatically. He eyed me with open suspicion. “Why do you look so pale?”
“Gee, maybe because she supplemented the vamps’ diet with some blood of her own?” Conal announced, intense sarcasm in his tone.
“You did what?” Epi apparently couldn’t decide whether he was astonished or furious and decided on a combination of both. “That was extremely foolish, child. Unlike your vampire friends here, your blood needs are one of a kind. I’m fresh out of Angel blood to give you.”
“That’s okay – I’ll survive.” Glancing around for the first time since returning, I discovered the church had been altered yet again. The bookshelves and shabby furniture had vanished and beds which appeared to have been liberated from a hospital were lined up in two neat rows. The Tines were being settled into the beds by werewolves and shape shifters, while Nonny flitted between them, handing out bottles of blood. “I like what you’ve done to the place,” I stated drily.
“Lottie – for Christ’s sake, can you never stay out of trouble?” The sound of Jerome’s thundering voice startled me and I turned to discover him limping across the room.
“What are you doing here?” I wrapped him in a hug, delighted to see my favorite surly doctor.
Jerome returned the hug and when he spoke, his voice was brusque. “Nick requested my presence and I flew down. He thought I could be of assistance when you returned. Plus,” he threw Nick a dirty look, “I’ve been none too pleased with his behavior towards you recently.”
“It’s good to have you here.” Looking around the room, it was evident that we needed him. We needed all the help we could get.
Lucas caught my eye and smiled, making my heart hammer a little harder. Butterflies twirled in my tummy as I returned his gaze, my feelings for him just as intense now as they had been five months ago. I managed a weak smile before my attention was captured by Katie. She’d been lying with William, held in his arms, but she’d managed to wriggle out of his hold and ran towards me. I dropped to one knee as she threw herself at me, squeezing me forcefully against her small body. “Hey, sweetie.”
“You brought William an’ Gwynn back!” she announced with a happy grin. “You brought ev’body back!”
“I told you I would,” I replied with an affectionate smile.
She pulled away to study my face, the expression on her little face serious. “They is hurt.”
I bit my lip anxiously, worried about how this tiny little girl would cope with what she was seeing. I’d never dreamed they would be so badly injured, so hideously disfigured when we rescued them.
Any worry was quickly extinguished when Katie continued on without taking time to breathe, her voice filled with confidence. “You can fix them, you is special. An angel can fix them, no problem.” Wrinkling her nose daintily, she sniffed the air around me. “You smell stinky, Lottie.”
I couldn’t help the chuckle which erupted. “Yeah, it is pretty stinky, isn’t it?” A hellish mix of demon blood, dirt and sweat plastered my skin and clothes. “You think I should take a shower?”
Katie nodded, her pixie-like face solemn. “I think so.”
“I promise I’ll go soon.”
“Shower first, Charlotte. You’re covered in blood and that arm needs another healing sigil,” Conal insisted as I straightened up.
“They need healing sigils,” I replied obstinately. There were ten beds in the room, five down each side and every single one held a vampire desperately in need of help. Nick and Ralph were gently lowering Rowena onto a bed, keeping their eyes respectfully averted and handling her with the utmost care. Nick carefully drew a sheet up over her still form before he brushed a tender kiss against her forehead. They were all hurting, each and every one of them and I couldn’t desert them now.
“They need blood more than anything,” Jerome announced, “and we’ve got that under control.” He eyed me with unabashed interest. “What the hell are healing sigils?”
“Hasn’t Epi brought you up to speed yet?” I questioned, distracted by the hum of activity around us.
“He’s given me a brief rundown on the history of Nememiah’s children, but I only got in an hour or two ago. I hit the ground running.”
“You and me both, Doc.”
Conal rubbed my arm softly. “The healing sigils can come later, Sugar. Right now they need blood and lots of it.”
“It’s the only thing we can do for them, unless these healing sigils will have an effect on vampires,” Jerome said, eyeing his patients with concern. “These injuries… ” his voice trailed off and he visibly forced himself to relax, showing a level of professionalism I admired. “They’re going to take some healing.”
“Trust me, Jerome,” Nick said, coming across to join us. “The healing sigils will have an effect. Be prepared to have your mind blown.”
“Why am I here, then?” Jerome questioned tartly, raising one bushy grey eyebrow.
“Because they’ll need other help,” Nick said quietly. “This kind of torture… there are injuries that aren’t just physical and you know it. We’re gonna need your expertise.” Nick inclined his head towards me. “Go have a shower, Lottie, we can hold down the fort for now.”
I sought out Epi, found him rushing across the room with a bowl of water and some towels and he rolled his eyes. “The new shower facilities are through the door on the right. Anyone would think I was running a hotel here.”
“Terrific,” I responded drily. “I’ll order room service when I’ve washed up. Don’t suppose you could rustle me up some clean clothes?”
“I keep telling you, Charlotte,” Epi called towards my retreating back. “I’m not some two bit magician!”
Waving my hand in recognition, I stomped tiredly through the door which had magically appeared since our earlier departure. True to his word, Epi had created a large bathroom, with a row of showers against one wall and toilet cubicles on the other. The walls were tiled in pale blue, the floor covered in smaller squares of white and blue. A pile of white towels lay on a bench near the doorway. Glancing into one of the shower stalls, I was ecstatic to discover he’d even supplied shower gel and shampoo. I vaguely considered what Epi usually did for a shower and whether these alterations to the church showed on the outside of the building. Might check that out later. I stripped off my destroyed clothes and released my hair from the tight braid. Turning on the faucets, I stood under the pulsating jets of hot water and washed away the filth, easing the pain in my aching muscles. I scrubbed until I felt clean again, then wallowed under the hot water for a few minutes more. Wrapping up in a large white towel, I stepped from the stall and grinned at the clean clothes laid neatly on top of the bench. “Love you, Epi.”
I dressed in fresh underwear, jeans and a pink tank top, all of which seemed to have been spirited directly from my wardrobe at Conal’s apartment. I retrieved the Hjördis and Katchet from my ruined camouflage pants, kicking them to one side in disgust. Turning on the faucet, I ran water over the blade to remove the demon blood, slipping it into my pocket along with the Hjördis.
Studying myself in the mirror, the first trickle of nerves slithered down my spine in a cold shiver. It had been five long months since I’d seen Lucas and a fierce dose of anxiety gripped me. What if he wasn’t interested now? What if he found the changes Conal had mentioned too radical to deal with? Worse still, I needed to explain my actions over the past few months. For a few, brief seconds I considered marking a new fearless sigil, but quickly disregarded the notion. Maybe Conal was right and I was out of control with it. Thinking of Conal led to further consternation. How was I meant to act around him now? We’d become so used to touching one another, hugging and kissing. It was going to be incredibly difficult to stop doing what had become natural after so long.
Hell, what a mess. I was an idiot with a capital I… and D… and… oh, to hell with it. I’d gotten into this mess, now I needed to work through it.
The injury to my arm still seeped blood and a quick glance at the palm of my hand confirmed it wasn’t holding together any better. I drew healing sigils against both wounds. A third sigil went against the cut in my forearm where the Tines had drunk my blood. I examined the wound and screwed up my nose at the enormous, plum-colored bruise which had blossomed around it.
For another few minutes I stared at the mirror, deliberately avoiding what would come next. For God’s sake, pull yourself together, I warned myself sternly. Stop hiding out in here and go and help them. Don’t be such a god-damn chicken – they’re badly injured and you’re worried about a relationship status? You’re pathetic. Squaring my shoulders determinedly, I shook my head at my reflection and marched towards the door. An hour ago I’d faced off against a fifteen foot tall demon – how hard could this possibly be in comparison?
It was a relief to find werewolves, vampires, shape shifters and one lone wizard getting along agreeably when I left the bathroom. At least they weren’t trying to kill one another. Nick and Conal’s men had spread themselves out amongst the beds, caring for our patients and I saw Nonny and Jerome leaning over Acenith, carefully cleaning the ragged stumps where her fingers had been hacked off. My stomach churned and I looked away. “Shower’s free,” I called out, stepping down from the altar.
“Yes!” Marco shouted gleefully. He snatched up a pile of clothes from the end of one of the beds but Nick stopped him with a pointed glare. “I can wait,” he muttered, looking a little disenchanted. “Conal, you can go first.”
I knew it was some sort of pack hierarchy at work but I grinned at Marco. “There’s more than one shower, Marco. In fact, there’s enough for all of you. Go get cleaned up.”
Marco joyfully collected up his clothes again after seeing Nick nod his assent and the men exited the room in the race for a hot shower.
Conal passed me at the altar and smiled reassuringly. “You alright, Sugar?” he asked in a low murmur. He knew me too well. Although rescuing the Tines was something we’d talked about repeatedly in the past few weeks, having them here was creating a ferocious apprehension that I hadn’t been prepared for. Explaining my relationship with Conal to Lucas was going to be more difficult than I’d ever envisaged. Recreating ties with my friends was going to be complicated.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” I swallowed nervously, brushing my still damp hair behind my ears.
Conal brushed a soft kiss against my cheek. “It’s going to be fine, he’ll understand.” He threw me a wink and disappeared into the bathroom.
I stepped down from the altar and approached the beds slowly. The men were tucked beneath the sheets, leaning back against pillows. The women had loose hospital gowns to cover their nudity and give them a degree of reassurance in trying conditions.
Jerome drew me to one side. “They’re in a bad way, Charlotte. It’ll take weeks for them to recover from these injuries, even if I could set up an intravenous line and feed them blood twenty four hours a day, it’d take weeks to heal the damage they’ve sustained. Nick tells me a lot of these injuries were caused by silver…” He trailed off, shaking his head in disgust. “Never dreamed it could affect vampires in this way, thought that was a myth, but here we are…” He stared down at me, his expression somber. “Nick says you can help them. If you can, you need to be doing it now. Vampire physiology is different, but they’re in serious trouble and their bodies are in shock. I can’t suggest what will happen if we don’t do something soon.”
“Tell me where to start, Jerome. I’ll do my best.”
He eyed me for a long moment, his grey eyes serious. “Let’s start with the ladies first. That’s what Lucas will insist on anyways.” He limped towards Acenith’s bed and Nonny moved to one side so I could see Acenith’s ravaged face. Her eyes were wide and glazed, pain shadowing her pretty features. Her hand had been carefully cleaned and rested against a soft pillow.
“Hey, Acenith,” I greeted her quietly, brushing my fingers across her forehead.
“Charlotte…” Acenith croaked weakly.
“Don’t speak,” I cautioned her. “Just let me try to help you.”
She nodded feebly and shut her eyes, too exhausted and overwhelmed to do anything else. Nonny had given her a careful sponge-bath, as much as was possible in her current traumatized state. I wanted to cry as I looked at the dreadful disfigurement covering her cheek, where holy water had been dribbled until her face resembled a melting candle.
Nonny patted my arm and gave it an encouraging squeeze. “You can do this, Lottie.” She slipped away and headed towards Rowena’s bed where Epi waited for her with a fresh bowl of water and clean towels. I watched them for a minute, saw them gently washing the accumulated grime and dirt from Rowena’s abused body.
“Lottie.” Jerome brought my attention back to the here and now.
Drawing the Hjördis from my pocket, I ran a careful eye over Acenith, trying to decide where to start. “Jesus,” I muttered under my breath, not sure how to handle this. They were all so incredibly damaged – injuries which didn’t come under a classification of either blood or poison.
Jerome squeezed my shoulder and I nearly snapped at him, until I saw the empathy in his eyes. “I know it’s tough, Lottie, but you need to focus. One thing at a time, it’s all you can do.”
After a quick discussion with the spirits, I began to work, their gentle murmurs soothing. The sigils were ones I hadn’t known before, but I trusted their advice. I drew an intricate sigil on the back of Acenith’s hand, close to where her fingers had been so cruelly amputated. I didn’t realize she’d opened her eyes until I heard a sharp intake of breath and found her staring as the stumps began to glow. We watched as new fingers began to extend from the shattered bone remains. As knuckles and joints were created, a layer of muscle and tendons followed, wrapping around the bone before the skin followed, carefully molding itself around fingers. Then fingernails formed, perfectly shaped and evenly trimmed. The skin glowed for a few seconds more as it knit over itself at the tips of her fingers, then slowly dissipated, leaving us staring at her hand in open-mouthed disbelief.
“Holy mother of God…” Jerome gasped. He lifted her hand, requesting she wriggle her fingers and make a fist to confirm she had full movement. “Did that hurt?”
“Non,” Acenith whispered, still staring at her hand as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “It was warm and I felt… a tingle, but no pain. Like épingles et aiguilles…pins and needles.”
I continued to work, leaning over her arm. The silver burns proved easier than I’d expected – the spirits identified the need for poison sigils because silver acted like toxin to a vampire. On the down side, they were also harder to deal with, because of the sheer number of them. We rapidly discovered a sigil could heal only a small amount of the damage before it faded and required repeating. It was going to be a long, time-consuming haul to repair all the damage. By the time I’d completed the poison sigils on Acenith’s battered body, the men had started returning from the showers. Rafe headed towards us and brushed his fingers tenderly across Acenith’s matted hair. “How’s she doing?”
“Getting there,” I muttered, as I conferred with the spirits regarding the holy water burns to her face. “Do you want to sit with her?”
Rafe grinned. “Nah, I’ll leave that for Ripley when he’s feeling better.”
I glanced up. “I thought…”
“Your plan worked,” Acenith whispered hoarsely. “Ripley and I,” she glanced across the room to where Ripley lay, her eyes filled with affection, “are together.”
I smiled happily. “I’m so pleased for you both.” Aware this situation might be awkward, I slanted my gaze to Rafe, wondering how he felt about Acenith and Ripley.
Rafe took Acenith’s hand and squeezed her fingers, winking at me as he did so. “Acenith’s a good friend. She asked me to help out and I did.”
A giggle erupted from my chest. “It was all a set-up?”
Rafe nodded. “Somebody needed to give Ripley a good kick up the ass so he’d see what was right in front of him.”
Jerome returned from Lucas’s bedside, his forehead creased in the almost perpetual frown he’d sported since we’d arrived. “I’ve spoken to Lucas, I’m worried about how much blood we can get into some of our patients,” he glanced at Acenith, who’d lain back against the pillows with her eyes shut, exhausted after our small talk. “I want to intubate those who are struggling to feed from the bottles.”
“We can do that?”
Jerome shrugged, the motion non-committal. “Can’t feed them intravenously, but a nasogastric tube might do the trick. Intubate through the nose, directly into the stomach and feed them blood from bags. Lucas thinks it should be achievable.”
“Okay, let’s do it,” I agreed easily.
“Charlotte, we won’t have enough blood to keep up with demand,” Jerome warned. “You obviously didn’t know how dire things would be and you don’t have enough supplies to last out.”
“We’ll get more,” Rafe announced, releasing his gentle grip on Acenith’s hand. “How much do you need?”
“A lot,” Jerome admitted, glancing around the room and mentally calculating. “Given their injuries, we’re looking at probably… eight to twelve pints apiece over the next twenty four to thirty six hours.”
Rafe was already moving, calling to Nick and Ralph who’d returned from the showers and they conferred for a few minutes in the corner. Nick strode over a few minutes later, his gaze taking in the work I’d already done with Acenith. “We’re heading out to get blood. Be back as soon as we can.”
“You won’t…” I began but Nick interrupted.
“We know the rules, Lott.” He squeezed my shoulder. “Keep working. We’ll get what you need.”
Jerome bustled about, preparing to intubate Acenith while I gingerly approached her face. If this failed… I shuddered at the thought. They’d all received injuries from holy water, but to see Acenith’s beautiful face so hideously disfigured… I was terrified I couldn’t fix it. Would she be scarred like this forever?
Epi bustled across as I wavered in indecision, his owl-like eyes examining her injuries. “You have done well, child, but why are you hesitating now?”
I swallowed. “Her face… if this doesn’t work…”
“She will still thank you for saving her life,” Epi announced. “Go on with your work and stop vacillating. Others are in need of your assistance.”
He hurried off again and I rolled my eyes. “Old bastard,” I muttered under my breath.
Jerome snorted and didn’t bother to hide the amusement in his gray eyes. “Looks like you’ve got two of us to deal with now.”
Acenith’s eyes fluttered open and she gazed at me for a moment, her usually sea-green eyes faded and listless. “Your friend is right,” she murmured. “I will thank you, regardless of whether I am completely healed or not. I have faith in you, Charlotte.” Her eyes closed again, her lashes creating dark fans against her too-white cheeks.
I licked my lips and did what I’d been told – stopped vacillating. With final verification from the spirits, I drew the sigil they’d recommended on Acenith’s cheek, shuddering when my hand came into contact with the wax-like rivulets of skin running down her cheek like a gruesome living candle. Stepping back, I held my breath and watched. I noticed Jerome had also stopped and was watching Acenith’s distorted features with undisguised interest.
Her eyes opened and she gasped, inhaling sharply as the damage on her cheek glowed and began to flatten and smooth out, the streams of damaged tissue integrating as though they were being melted into place by a hot iron. It took a few minutes, but by the time the sigil had vanished, so had the damage.
Jerome brushed his fingertips across the smooth skin, as if he couldn’t believe it was real without physical touch. “Did that hurt?” he questioned bluntly.
Acenith shook her head minutely. “No, it was… again… a warm, a tingling sensation.” With a visible tremble in her fingers, she carefully touched her cheek and her eyes widened in astonishment.
I grinned broadly and whooped with delight, before encasing Acenith in a gentle hug. “Get some rest, I’ll be back to visit later.”